Caps Down the Stretch: Team Quality, the Deadline, and “Going for It”

Braden Holtby has caught an unbfortunate amount of flak for the Capitals' other shortcomings.

With the Olympics now over, NHL teams are re-converging on their practice facilities as they prepare to head down the final 23 or so games of their regular seasons.  The Washington Capitals finished their pre-Olympic hockey on a high note, winning two games in a row to climb within one point of a playoff spot.  And so, it’s time to re-visit this team as they near the quarter pole.  So here…we…go.

First off, it’s important for people to recognize that at this juncture, the Washington Capitals are simply not very good.  They have their good nights, and they have certainly played better of late.  They deserve credit for that, but it doesn’t change realities about them.  Most notable of those improvements has been their puck possession, which has gone from 27th in the league midway through the campaign to 20th as of this writing, at a modest 48.6% fenwick with the score close.  But that’s still not very good, and Washington’s place in the standings, 5th in the Metropolitan Division (a bad division), indicates that.

On top of the fact that the Capitals are not very good overall, it bears mentioning again that their March schedule is going to be a death march (see what I did there?).  They play the Bruins three times, the Penguins and Kings twice, and the Canucks, Ducks, and Sharks once.  The invaluable Rob Vollman has calculated that the Capitals have the hardest post-Olympic schedule of any team in the league in terms of possession, winning percentage, and home/road winning percentage.  That does not paint a rosy picture.

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So what does that mean?  It likely means that the Capitals should stand pat at the deadline, and certainly not be buyers.  There is NO ONE out there at their chief position of need, left-handed top-four defenseman, who could be acquired at a reasonable cost and make this team a contender this season or in the future.  There are too many holes to fill at the trade deadline, and any player acquired this close to that deadline will come at an inflated cost, like a young prospect or a high draft pick.

George McPhee has gone on record twice in the last week now saying that he would trade players and picks to make the team better if that was the necessary course of action to “make the team better.”  I would strongly disagree with this course of action of it came to fruition.  As I explained above, this team is simply not very good right now and continuing to mortgage the future while desperately holding on to the past ideal that the team is a strong contender is nonsensical.  They’re not, and while adding a defenseman better than John Erskine or Connor Carrick to play regularly would certainly make them better and get them in to the playoffs, it would not put them over the hump. 

Making the playoffs does not mean “anything can happen.”  The 2012 Kings were a generational event where a dominant possession team rode a swing in fortunes and an unbelievable goaltending performance to a Stanley Cup.  Oh, and they were deeper at every position than the Capitals are now.  Doing what the Kings did is not a model for future success.  Stop comparing them.

Specifically, I feel the need to address the idea that Ryan Miller would be a boon to this team, as there seems to be real traction on Miller perhaps becoming a Capital according to reliable media members like Renaud Lavoie and Darren Dreger.  This trade would make zero sense, unless the package going back was something like Aaron Volpatti, Martin Erat, and Brooks Laich (which of course it never would be).  Miller is an aging goalie that will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and has a .926 even strength save percentage.  Braden Holtby is a young goalie with a .925 even strength save percentage. 

That’s not a big difference (in fact the difference is about as small as you can get), so the idea that the Caps are “not happy with their goaltending” is, again, nonsensical.  The goaltending has been league average for most of the year overall, which should not be a huge deal for a team that management believes should compete for a Stanley Cup.  Any team can look like a contender with amazing/unsustainable goaltending, which Holtby has provided for just about his entire career save about 15 games this season.  Say the Caps trade for Miller, they make the playoffs, and then lose in the second round.  Then what?  Miller walks, all three young goalies are pissed, and the team is out prospects and draft picks.  The real problem with this team is the defense, which allows a lot of shots.  The fourth most in the entire NHL, in fact, at 33.3 per game.  They ice at least two, sometimes three, defensemen who belong in the AHL on any given night.  The way to fix a bad defense is not to trade for a better goaltender.

In conclusion, the best course of action in my opinion would be for the Capitals to sell at the deadline, try to rid themselves of some contracts, and re-up for next year and beyond.  It won't happen, of course, but I do believe that it is the best option.  The salary cap is going up, and good young players are knocking on the door, particularly in the forward ranks.  I understand that it is unfortunate and slightly depressing to waste the marvelous seasons that Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are having on a team that may miss the playoffs or flame out early.  But it is reality.  You can’t ride two players, or even three or four, to a championship.  You need balance, possession, and strength at all areas in the lineup.  The Capitals don’t have that, and they will not get it at the deadline.  Why do people seem convinced that some sort of huge turnaround is coming?

To me, the risks of going for it far, far outweigh the potential rewards.  Just like last season, and the season before that.

Harry Hawkings is a college student who writes about the Capitals. Follow him on Twitter (or yell at him) here.

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